John J. Hopkins & Associates

Surgical errors are more widespread than many realize

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has released a Patient Safety Primer about the issue of "wrong-site, wrong-procedure, wrong-patient errors" (so-called "WSPEs") to raise awareness for providers and patients alike. A previous study published in the Archives of Surgery that analyzed both voluntary and mandatory healthcare facility reporting data shows that as many as 2700 WSPEs happen each year in a variety of surgical settings (including inpatient, outpatient, ambulatory care and interventional radiology).

What are WSPEs?

According to the AHRQ's Patient Safety Primer on the issue, WSPEs are the most common types of surgical errors. They are defined as:

  • "Wrong-site" errors happen when the proper surgical procedure is performed, but on the wrong location in the patient's body. Examples include operating on the left knee instead of the right one, removing a healthy ovary instead of a diseased one or operating on the wrong level of the patient's spinal column.
  • "Wrong-procedure" errors involve performing the wrong surgery altogether but on the right patient. This could happen, for example, when two patients are scheduled back-to-back in the same operating theater, one of which is supposed to undergo a knee surgery, the other of which is set for an ankle surgery. The surgeon could inadvertently perform the knee surgery on the patient who was supposed to have ankle surgery or vice versa.
  • "Wrong-patient" errors, as the name says, involve operating on the wrong patient, usually one who has the same or similar first or last name as the patient who was originally supposed to undergo the surgery.

What should you do if you've suffered a WSPE?

First, if you or someone you love has been the victim of a wrong-site, wrong-procedure or wrong-patient surgery error, you should speak up. Don't think that you have to suffer in silence, even if the physician directly apologizes for their mistake; make sure that the hospital administration and the proper administrative bodies are made aware of the issue. This could include making a complaint to the state's medical licensing board and/or hospital accreditation agency.

In addition, you should seriously consider speaking with an experienced medical malpractice attorney to discuss possible legal options at your disposal. The doctor's or facility's mistakes could result in lasting physical repercussions for you. At the very least, you could need additional surgery to correct any issues that arose as a result of the original errors.

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ALTON —Like any successful trial lawyer, John Hopkins knows the importance of preparation. But he usually doesn’t write out the questions he plans to ask witnesses in depositions or in court.

“I like to react to what the witness is saying—not only what they’re saying, but how they’re saying it,” Hopkins says.

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